In the absence of a true benchmark against which to gauge your progress, how can you tell if you’ve made it?
“Welcome to the largest multilingual summit this office has ever organized. Congratulations on making it here. You are the best of the best.”
With these words, the chief interpreter of a top international organization greeted the 70 or so interpreters who gathered around the u-shaped table for the pre-event briefing in Washington, DC. Half of the group had heard similar praise before and took it for what it was. The rookies among them received the compliment sheepishly, trying hard to act matter-of-factly while secretly wishing their mothers had been there.
Ours is a funny business. As interpreters, we tend to get rated in relation to someone other than us—and whose prestige we hope will rub off on us for a brief moment in time. It’s not uncommon to refer to a colleague as “the interpreter of President Such and Such,” or to elevate someone instantly by saying “she interpreted for _____ (fill in the blank: Madonna, the Pope, Obama). No word seems to be needed regarding how well she performed at the job. The distinction of having been picked for such a salient assignment seems to suffice as a tag of success.
Now, while we all occasionally play the celebrity card and name-dropping to our advantage—as we well should—anybody who has been in this business long enough understands that true success in our line of work lies somewhere else, usually a few notches down the superstar scale.
Chief interpreters are aware of the power of applause and criticism and will dispense them accordingly, on an as-needed-basis. And while preemptive praise can go a long way in terms of team building or as a confidence booster, it more often than not aims at imparting a sense of responsibility rather than importance. Stripped of the heightened sense of self it is designed to trigger, at its core the message means, simply: “Please, don’t screw this up.”
Yet, in the absence of a true benchmark against which to gauge your progress, how can you tell if you’ve made it? Are you truly the best interpreter out there? Before you start racking your brain for answers, here is another question you may want to ponder along with the rest: does it really matter?
As freelancers at the mercy of market conditions, we compete against one another for a dwindling number of contracts. Hitting a few homeruns, while a great achievement, is not a reliable long-term measure of success, especially if flashy assignments are few and far between. There is nothing wrong in enjoying the exposure high-level assignments provide, and you should by all means capitalize on them as openly as you ethically can. But at the end of the day, success is not determined by how royal the ball or how tall the celebrity in whose shadow we stand. In fact, who hires us matters less than the fact that they do or how often they do.
Also, past success is said to breed failure if you indulge in it too soon, while tomorrow still needs to be filled with work. In a career as long as ours, stamina beats speed. We’re all in it for the long haul. Consistency rules. If you want to know how successful you truly are, look at your calendar.
But the question still begs an answer. Have you made it? On a good day, we all like to think we have. We’re still around, after all, with a growing track record behind us and the promise of greener pastures ahead. As for bad days, of which there will be a few, you can always dust off that picture of you and _______ (fill in the blank).
Ewandro Magalhães is an experienced conference interpreter and interpreter trainer. He has a master’s degree in conference interpreting from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. He is the head of conference management service, and former chief interpreter, at the International Telecommunication Union in Geneva, Switzerland. He is the author of Sua Majestade, o Intérprete—o fascinante mundo da tradução simultânea. You can read his blog at ewandro.com.